A letter between writers

Whether it’s Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling, or David Lindsay to E H Visiak, reading letters between writers, you often find things getting a little formulaic. So, if you ever get caught in a writerly correspondence (highly unlikely, nowadays), here are all your epistolary requirements met:

Dear [fellow writer]

First of all, apologies for not having replied to your previous letter sooner. You know how life is!

[Then, either this paragraph:]

Thanks for the copy of your latest book. A work of genius, though few of course will see it. Critics are, in the main, dullards. As for me, it has left my head so full of thoughts that I cannot set them down just yet. A second read, and a bit more leisure, will allow me to do so. Now, of course, you must immediately set about writing something new! The world awaits your next masterpiece!

[or this paragraph:]

Commiserations on your continued efforts to find a publisher. Publishers are, in the main, dullards. It will, I am sure, one day soon find a home.

[Finally:]

As for my own writing, I have been rather lax of late. All this business with moving house, and so on. You know how life is! I will endeavour to do more!

Yours,

[your name, in a slightly less formal version than in the last letter, till you hit on a pair of silly nicknames for one another]

That Alien Aesthetic

The latest Doctor Who DVD release, The Sensorites, has got me thinking about my eccentric Doctor Who buying habits. I get all the Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton DVDs on principle, but pick and choose from the William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee stories, perhaps because I like the comic Doctors better than the cranky ones. I’ve only just realised, though, that the First Doctor stories I buy are always the science fiction ones, never the historicals. To me, those early stories are usually too slow-paced to succeed as dramas, so my enjoyment of them has to come from their atmosphere. And when it comes to atmosphere, the old TV shows couldn’t help doing minimalist sci-fi better than they did history.

I love the aesthetic of old sci-fi (the sort of thing that begs to be called sci-fi, rather than SF). Despite Coleridge’s most famous remark on the subject, I think there are two ways to make fantasy work. One is, indeed, through the suspension of disbelief, but the other is what I might call suspension by disbelief — by which I mean the sort of thing that kicks in when you’re presented with something so strange it doesn’t matter whether it’s convincing or not, it conquers by aesthetics alone. Limited by budget and technology as they were, the old Doctor Whos, to be successful, had to rely on artistry as much as craftsmanship. A single fault (a sticking-out zip or a wobbly mask) will puncture the “convince them it’s real” suspension-of-disbelief approach, but the alternative, “convince them it’s alien“, works top-down, not by the evidence of the senses, but through the sense of wonder. Doctor Who’s early aliens work by being so weird you don’t so much believe in them, as bask in their strangeness.

"Does he mean me?"

It’s impossible to see the Daleks in this way nowadays, due to overfamiliarity, but their extremely unconventional, not-a-man-in-a-suit design goes to the heart of it. The Dalek design looks like a very alien solution to the problem of how to survive in an overly radioactive environment (encase yourself in a life-support machine and stay indoors, after which you’re bound to get a bit cabin feverish and want to conquer the universe). A more obvious example is the Alice in Wonderland sensibility of The Web Planet, with its stagey, almost balletic make-believe world of man-sized moths and giant ants, as well as those crawling things that were a cross between The Magic Roundabout‘s Dougal and a hairbrush. It would take a billion dollar budget to convince you the Web Planet was real, and perhaps another billion to make sure you didn’t laugh, so why not just convince you it’s so strange it’s worth doing away with your disbelief altogether? With this approach, it’s the surprising details that convince, not the realistic ones, so the Sensorites’ circular feet — the first detail of theirs you see, after that spooky scene where one peeks into the spaceship from the outside — as much as their long, wispy-bearded, old-man faces, that goes towards making you believe in these alien creatures.

Most of all, I love the original Cybermen, from William Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet. I would probably have first seen them on the wonderfully Art Nouveau-ish cover (by Chris Achilleos) to the Target novelisation, where their peculiarly feminine looks make them all the more spooky, like futuristic mummies in white bandages. Watching them in action (via YouTube, though I long for them on DVD), the awkwardness of their design only makes them all the more alien. Those huge chest units they lumber around with are exactly the sort of thing a Cyberman would design — all function, no ergonomics — as are the chillingly minimal childlike doodles of their faces. In fact, watching them waddle about with all that front-loaded weight, and their head-mounted guns, I can’t help feeling they look like robotised pregnant women in beehive hairdos, which makes their ultra-modernist emotionlessness all the more scary. And a world apart from the tramping little-boy militarism of their latest incarnation. In this way, it’s the rough edges, the feeling of those early Cybermen’s make-do approach to self-design, that convinces.

Perhaps this is why William Hartnell’s alien stories were always set away from contemporary Earth. Except for the Daleks (who had already invaded everyday life by the time they hit the Earth on TV), the First Doctor’s encounters with alien life took place on other planets, or on spaceships, or in the future, and I’m sure it was only this happening-in-another-place feel that made the aliens work. Were a Menoptera or a Sensorite to appear in contemporary London — except for Carnaby Street, where it might get invited to a Love-in — it would undoubtedly wither before the glare of reality. But out in space, where no-one can hear you say “It’s got a zip up the back!”, they’re in their own weird, modernist, minimalist, unnatural environment, where it’s not belief, but sheer strangeness, that wins the day.

Le Morte Darthur

Malory’s world in Le Morte Darthur is one where “Right lends Might”, where “God will have a stroke in every battle”. Sir Lancelot is the hero of Malory’s book, a super-knight whose prowess at combat means he can never be defeated, whatever the odds:

“With that came in Sir Lancelot, and he thrust in with his spear in the thickest of the press; and there he smote down with one spear five knights, and of four of them he broke their backs. And in that throng he smote down the King of Northgales, and broke his thigh in that fall.”

So great is Malory’s love of Lancelot, he paints himself into a corner, as in each new combat Lancelot must top his previous performance, fighting that many more knights in one go, or, if really forced to fight only the one (such as the wicked Sir Meliagaunt) offering to do so partly armoured and with one hand tied behind his back:

“‘Well, I shall proffer you a large proffer,’ said Sir Lancelot, ‘that is for to say I shall unarm my head and my left quarter of my body, all that may be unarmed as for that quarter, and I will let bind my left hand behind me where it shall not help me, and right so I shall do battle with you.'”

But with the final battle, Le Morte Darthur suffers a change of style that, while it ought never to work after such near-ridiculous heroic heights, is profoundly moving. The fatal wounding of Arthur forces a shift from superhero romp to tragic, gritty realism, and suddenly it’s as if all the nobility and chivalry have gone out of the world, leaving a grim place of grievous, messy injuries and (far worse, to Malory) death by ignoble hands:

“So Sir Lucan departed, for he was grievously wounded in many places. And so as he rode, he saw and hearkened by the moonlight how that pillagers and robbers were come into the field to pillage and to rob many a full noble knight of brooches and bees [arm or neck rings], and of many a good ring and many a rich jewel. And who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches.”

and:

“Then Sir Lucan took up the King in one part, and Sir Bedivere the other part, and in the lifting up the King swooned; and in the lifting Sir Lucan fell in a swoon, that part of his guts fell out of his body, and therewith the noble knight’s heart brast [burst]. And when the King awoke, he beheld Sir Lucan how he lay foaming at the mouth, and part of his guts lay at his feet.”

It’s the mythic picture of a dilemma that’s still with us. Ideals are illusions, but they’re all the magic we’ve got in this world. Messy realities, though they’re the sort of truth you can verify, can’t be all we live by. Human beings are half animal and half imagination, and the tussle between the two creates a similar tussle between fantasy and realism in great works of art. And Le Morte Darthur is certainly one of them.

(Quotes from Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, Oxford World’s Classics, ed. Helen Cooper.)